Revisiting the blue economy – a vital part of the world’s environment

This is the third in a series of republished blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange, revisiting important topics with ongoing relevance for public policy and practice, as well as for communities and wider society. This post covers the blue economy, focusing on why it is so important, the current challenges and what is being done to protect it. At the end of the republished article, we’ve updated the post to report on recent developments.

As the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’, increasing attention has been paid to the green economy. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out a vital part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why is the blue economy so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held in 2018. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September 2018, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.

What happened next?

Since this blog was first published in 2019, the world has been turned on its head by the global pandemic. But while COVID-19 has stopped many things in their tracks, the climate crisis is not one of them. The IPCC’s latest report has provided new estimates of the chances of exceeding the 1.5°C global warming level, warning that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

Of course, like so many others, the pandemic has also severely impacted blue economy sectors, which now need further support. The precise impacts of the disruption on the future of the blue economy remain unclear and it has been argued that building strategies that seek to maintain its potential pre-COVID will be challenging. However, the momentum that was building across the globe in committing to growing the blue economy has not halted.

We have now reached the UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) which provides a common framework to ensure that ocean science can fully support countries to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 14 world leaders of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy have committed to sustainably manage 100% of the ocean area under their national jurisdiction by 2025.

Despite delays and constraints, progress has been made by the WTO on harmful fisheries subsidies, with the 12th Ministerial Conference now to take place from 30 November to 3 December 2021.

And following the Scottish Government’s commitment to growing the blue economy, it has since committed to developing a blue economy action plan which will take a joined-up strategic approach across the diverse range of Scotland’s established and emerging marine sectors to maximise the opportunities offered by its abundantly rich marine zone. It will also “seek to help marine sectors and coastal communities to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and grow sustainably whilst also supporting a transition through EU Exit.

If anything, the pandemic has succeeded in emphasising the enormity of the climate emergency and the action required to address it. And the world’s oceans still have a vital role to play in this fight.

As we approach COP26, often billed as our ‘last chance’, it is hoped that outcomes will include “greatly enhanced commitments and resources to meet the challenges presented by the ocean-climate nexus”.


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Supporting universities could be key to economic and social recovery

“Support for universities means support for businesses and jobs, for key workers, and for levelling up the UK’s towns and regions.” (Universities UK)

Universities have long been positively associated with economic growth, not only for the regional areas in which they are situated but also for neighbouring regions as a result of spillover effects. The total income of the UK university sector has been estimated at around £40 billion per year – 1.8% of national income.

Many universities are important anchors in their local areas, supporting community activity in various ways and working in collaboration with smaller businesses. And they have played a vital role in the response to the current pandemic through medical research, sharing of resources and community wellbeing efforts. 

With widespread agreement over ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom’, it is no surprise there have been calls to ensure investment in this sector is a central priority. In forecasting the potential impact of UK universities over the next five years, recent research from Universities UK suggests that a well-supported university sector could be key to the economic and social recovery from the pandemic.

Supporting people

The Universities UK report outlines the ways in which universities support people, including by providing a pipeline of key workers and enabling upskilling for new jobs. It is projected that by May 2026, more than 191,000 nurses, 84,000 medical specialists and 188,000 teachers will graduate from UK universities. And it is suggested that these are likely to be underestimates. If these forecasts are accurate, the potential for universities to help address the skills gaps and shortages that the UK faces is clear, particularly as nursing and teaching have featured on the hard-to-fill and skills shortage vacancies lists.

It is also projected that demand for higher level skills will continue rising into the late 2020s. In the shorter term, 79% of employers with more than 25 staff anticipate a need for upskilling in the next 12 months, rising to 84% for firms with over 100 staff. No region sees the need for upskilling fall below 60%. In addition to educating students, universities are responding to this need with training and upskilling programmes tailored to employers and the community. Forecasts for each of the UK nations include:

  • universities in Northern Ireland will deliver the equivalent of 410 years of professional development training and education courses to businesses and charities in the next five years (and 90 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • Scottish universities will provide 3,490 years of training by May 2026 (over 600 years’ worth in the next year)
  • Welsh universities will deliver the equivalent of nearly 4,800 years of upskilling in the next five years (over 880 years’ worth in the next 12 months)
  • universities in England will provide the equivalent of over 549 centuries (54,936 years) of training by May 2026, and 10,580 years’ worth in the next year alone

As has been argued, “part of the effect of universities on growth is mediated through an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation”. 

Local economic impact

The local economic impact of universities is widely recognised. Universities have consistently attracted funding for local regeneration projects with significant economic and social impacts and the report forecasts that these will have a value of over £2.5 billion in local places across the UK over the next five years.

It is suggested that many of these projects will also attract additional funding from universities and businesses, resulting in even greater local impact.

Universities also have a direct impact on their local economies as large employers. It is estimated that 1.27% of all people in employment in the UK work for a university. Other recent analysis suggests that universities typically support up to one additional job in the immediate local economy for every person they directly employ.

The impact of universities on local procurement is also emphasised, highlighting the example of the Leeds Anchors Network, which is looking at opportunities to direct spending locally.  The report suggests that if anchor institutions in Leeds shift 10% of their total spending to suppliers in the region this could be worth up to £196 million each year.

Collaboration and contributing to research

The report also considers the role of universities in partnering with business, including providing advice/training and enabling cutting edge research and innovation.

It is forecast that UK universities will be commissioned to provide over £11.6 billion of support and services to small enterprises, businesses and not-for-profits over the next five years, ranging from specialist advice, access to the latest facilities and equipment to develop innovative products, and conducting bespoke research projects. It is also expected that universities will attract national and international public funds to spend on collaborative research with businesses and non-academic organisations, estimated to be worth £21.7 billion over the next five years.

The report highlights that this research leads to impact in priority sectors. In the East Midlands, for example, over a third of competitive funding received by research organisations since 2014 was for clean growth and infrastructure projects with businesses, a higher proportion than any other region. In Yorkshire 85% of funding has been for manufacturing, materials and mobility projects, and 53% of funding in London has been in the area of ageing, health and nutrition.

Universities have also been shown to be effective in commercialising their research via spinouts, an area that has a great deal of potential to contribute to economic growth.

Despite all universities conducting cutting-edge research, there are regional disparities in research and innovation investment. And there has been historic underfunding in some regions which has led to inequalities in economic performance across the UK, putting the levelling up agenda at risk. The report therefore argues that “research and innovation policy needs to be designed alongside, and be closely aligned to, local economic development policy.”

Of course, the higher education sector hasn’t been immune to recent financial cuts and the expected losses for the sector are “highly uncertain” as highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And the recent announcement of the 50% cut to university arts funding will come as a big blow to the already suffering creative industries sector. The decision, made in a bid to redirect spending to subjects considered a ‘strategic priority’ by the government such as medicine and STEM, is a concern if it is to have a detrimental impact on the arts industry talent pipeline.

Final thoughts

Depending on the losses the university sector experiences, it may be that the five year forecasts presented in the Universities UK report do not come to fruition.

However, as the intention of the government is to ‘level up’ and create a ‘place strategy’, surely universities have to play a central role given their huge economic and social potential. And that means investment, not cuts. As the Universities UK report highlights:

“World-class innovation and research assets need support. Training highly skilled people requires investment. Ensuring the benefits of both of these are felt equally around the UK will depend on robust policy and funding decisions.”


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Fair and flexible labour market: building back better

Much has been reported on the recovery from the pandemic and how things can be ‘built back better’ but what about those groups that have been disproportionately affected?

Recent research has highlighted the unequal impacts the pandemic has had on particular groups within the labour market.  From the lowest paid to part-time workers and women, research has considered how things could be moved forward so that those that have borne the brunt of the economic impact are not left behind. In this blog, we take a look at some of these publications, each of which highlights the need to create a fairer and more flexible labour market.

Low paid workers: new settlement needed

The Resolution Foundation’s latest annual Low pay Britain report has warned that the low paid are at greatest risk of becoming unemployed once the furlough scheme ends in September.

Despite the positive backdrop for low paid workers in the run up to the crisis with a fast rising minimum wage following the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) in 2016 – which has driven the first sustained fall in low pay for 40 years – the Covid-19 crisis has adversely affected the low paid to a much greater degree than the higher paid. The research showed that workers ranked in the bottom fifth for pay were three times more likely to have lost jobs, hours or have been furloughed than the top paid fifth. Low paid workers are also more likely to work in the sectors most impacted by the pandemic – hospitality, leisure and retail.

As the economy reopens, however, so too do the sectors most restricted over the past year which improves the prospects for low paid workers. Indeed, they are now returning to work fastest. In April alone, almost a million workers came off furlough – more than half of them employees in hospitality, leisure or retail.

But while the report highlights the positive prospects for the low paid, it also addresses several key issues that policy makers will need to consider if the low paid are to benefit from the recovery. Major risks for the low paid are identified:

  • higher unemployment
  • decreasing job security
  • infringements of labour market rights

It argues that low paid workers’ relative unemployment risk after the pandemic is likely to be particularly high given the possibility of structural change concentrated on low paying sectors. And if unemployment rises, it is noted that job quality and infringements of labour market rights are likely to deteriorate.

The Resolution Foundation calls for a new settlement for low paid workers, arguing that “policy makers must look beyond the minimum wage – to job security and labour market regulation – for ways to ensure it’s a recovery that benefits low paid workers”.

Part-time employees: must be included in the recovery

As we move towards the end of restrictions and of the furlough scheme, cracks have also started to emerge for part-time workers, who have been “clinging on in a volatile labour market” according to recent analysis by the Timewise Foundation.

This report notes that part-time employees are one demographic that hasn’t had the same level of scrutiny in the literature as other disproportionality affected groups.

The experience and outlook for part-time employees appears “particularly bleak” according to the report. Despite the furlough scheme being effective in protecting millions from unemployment, it is argued that it is actually masking significant challenges – most notably for part-time workers. The disproportionate impact on part-timers has seen them face higher levels of reduced hours and redundancy. They are also less likely than full-timers to return to normal hours and to hang on to roles during lockdowns.

Evidence shows 44% of part-time employees who were away from work during the first lockdown continued to be away from work between July and September 2020, when restrictions began to temporarily ease. This compares to 33.6% of full-time employees.

The majority (80%) of part-time workers also do not want to work more hours but as Timewise data shows, only 8% of jobs are advertised as part-time – “simply too big a problem to ignore”.

In response to the analysis, a vision for change is set out, focusing on creating a fair and flexible labour market that will:

  • support those in everyday jobs to access flexibility
  • help the millions of people who want or need to work flexibly to find flexible opportunities
  • remove some of the barriers to support those trapped in low-paid work and unable to progress

Women: promoting a gendered recovery

Women have also been disproportionately affected in the labour market, particularly as they are often employed in low-paid and part-time jobs within shutdown sectors such as hospitality and retail, which are notoriously characterised by job insecurity.

This was highlighted in a recent briefing paper by Close the Gap and Engender which looked at the impacts of Covid-19 on women’s wellbeing, mental health, and financial security in Scotland. The paper confirms pre-existing evidence that women have been particularly affected by rising financial precarity and anxiety as a result.

The closure of schools and nurseries and increased childcare disproportionately affected women’s employment and women’s propensity to work part-time places them at greater risk of job disruption. The data shows that young women and disabled women are being particularly impacted by the pandemic.

Key findings include that women are more likely than men to be receiving less support from their employer since the first lockdown, and were significantly more likely than men to report increased financial precarity as a result of the crisis – this was particularly the case for young women and disabled women. Timewise points to the potential for this to add to a growing child poverty crisis.

Similarly to the above reports, which call for the specific affected groups to be included in any future employment strategy, this report concludes by highlighting the importance of a gender-sensitive approach to rebuilding the labour market and economy.

Final thoughts

While furlough has undoubtedly protected many within those groups who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, this is only temporary and as all three reports above suggest, these groups are at greatest risk of unemployment and job insecurity when the scheme finally ends.

The research clearly calls for a fairer and more flexible labour market with stronger and better rights for all workers. Failure to address this in the attempt to build back better will only serve to increase the inequalities that already exist in the labour market.


The reports highlighted in this blog post have recently been added to The Knowledge Exchange (TKE) database. Subscribers to TKE information service have direct access to all of the abstracts on our database, with most also providing the full text of journal articles and reports. To find out more about our services, please visit our website: https://www.theknowledgeexchange.co.uk/

Further reading on employment issues from The Knowledge Exchange Blog:

From rainbows to Banksy – have lockdowns created a new appreciation for the value of the arts?

Cultural and creative sectors are among the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Recent analysis suggests that jobs at risk in the sector range from 0.8 to 5.5% of employment across OECD regions. In the UK, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector saw the second largest economic decline of all sectors of the economy during the pandemic.

While the negative impact of crises is justifiably focused on, there are often positive opportunities to arise from such shocks such as widespread collaboration and innovative behaviours to find solutions. Indeed, the current pandemic is no different. Amidst the myriad of reports of the dire economic impact emerges a much more colourful picture of a resurgence in arts and creativity across not only the country but the world.

Rising creativity

From the abundance of rainbows displayed in windows across the UK to singers and musicians entertaining their neighbours from their balconies in Italy and elsewhere, the global pandemic has led to many turning to the arts and creative activities in a bid to help each other’s wellbeing and to thank those on the frontline for their heroic efforts to protect us all.

Many young people found new ways to express themselves through creativity during lockdown, whether drawing or making things, creating music or videos to share on social media. Examples of what young people in England have been creating are presented in Arts Council England’s project The Way I See It .

All sorts of artists from across the globe have been sharing their coronavirus-inspired artwork via social media.

The infamous street artist Banksy has also been joining in, creating a variety of new work from rats encouraging people to wear face masks on the London Underground to a piece paying tribute to NHS workers in Southampton General Hospital.

And the industry itself has had to get creative finding new ways to reach people. Many cultural and creative organisations have moved to delivering digital content to keep audiences engaged, which has opened the door for many future innovations. Organisations and individuals have also been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience:

“I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

Economic and social value

While there has generally been a need to make the case for the value of arts and creative activity, whether in education or business, perhaps the impact of lockdowns has afforded the opportunity for everyone to recognise their value both at times of crisis and as part of recovery.

The sector is already an economic driver and source of innovation. In 2019, the economic output of arts and culture was equivalent to 0.5% of the whole UK economy. And despite the immediate economic impact of the pandemic, there is hope that the sector will recover quickly, albeit with significant government support. Recent research from the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) predicts that the sector’s Gross Value Added (GVA) will return to its pre-lockdown level of £13.5bn by 2022 with the help of the Culture Recovery Fund, a full year earlier than was anticipated without government intervention. The research also shows the sector is set to be worth £15.2 billion to the economy by 2025.   

As well as contributing to the economic recovery, the sector can also play a crucial role in the social recovery as indicated by the many examples highlighted above.

As non-educators, many home-schooling parents have moved towards cultural and creative enrichment for their children. It has been well-documented that arts and creative activities can help improve mental health and wellbeing and at a time when there are grave concerns about young people’s mental health, surely this can only be a good thing.

As previous pandemics and disasters have consistently shown, a major focus of recovery needs to be on mental health; something that the arts and creative industries can clearly help with.

Final thoughts

At time when we might all feel like social distancing from ourselves, the arts and creative activities can provide an escape for everyone. The value of arts and culture, both economically and socially, cannot be underestimated. Perhaps the most positive outcome of the current pandemic for these sectors, will be the newfound appreciation of them from all walks of life which will hopefully translate into decision-makers thinking twice before laying the brunt of budget cuts at their door.


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Guest post: How working from home could revitalise rust belt cities

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Michel Serafinelli, University of Essex

For years, we have been promised a work-from-home revolution, and it seems that the pandemic has finally brought it to pass. In April this year, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus, 47% of people in the UK were working from home, the vast majority of them doing so because of the pandemic. In a sense this is overdue: the work-from-home potential for UK employees is 32%; in France, Germany and Italy between 24% and 28%.

This structural transformation has the potential to at least partially undo another transformation from the previous century. With the decline of manufacturing in the United Kingdom after the 1970s, some cities – incuding Hull, Sheffield, Bradford and Stoke-on-Trent – entered a spiral of high unemployment and out-migration that has lasted to this day. This trend is echoed in other “rust belt” cities such as Saint-Etienne in France, Wuppertal in Germany and the American city of Detroit.

The rise of teleworking could end that spiral – if the right conditions are met.

The changing workplace

It’s unlikely that telework will end when the pandemic does – we will instead probably see workplaces encouraging a mix of in-office and home working. Some organisations may start asking workers to be in the office for only two to three days per week, while others may opt for a “conference model” (that is, a few consecutive days or a week per month for all employees).

This does not mean the death of big cities. London will probably stay attractive and innovative thanks to its very strong initial advantage. San Francisco and Seattle in US, Munich in Germany and Amsterdam in the Netherlands will all remain hubs for knowledge workers. Scholars believe face-to-face still rules when it comes to creativity, and such cities provide an environment that is conducive to innovation.

But rust belt areas are cheaper and can attract skilled workers to regularly spend more time there once the pandemic is over.

A busy street in Soho, London.
London will not lose its appeal. christo mitkov christov/Shutterstock

The job multiplier effect

How can formerly deprived cities thrive after the pandemic? To understand the potential for revitalisation of rust belt cities, we can invoke the job multiplier effect. This is where the presence of skilled workers helps create other jobs through increased demand for local goods and services. For example, after their day on Zoom (at home or in a local co-working space), skilled workers will want to go out. In this way they support a barista, a waiter, a chef and perhaps a taxi driver. Some will decide to renovate the house they live in, and ask a local architect. Once or twice a week they go for yoga. They may need a dogsitter when they travel.

This is not the only mechanism that could help with local revitalisation. Some of the people regularly spending more time in rust belt areas would be entrepreneurs, and we may see new business creation, as they seize new opportunities in industries such as culture, renewable energies, tourism, quality agro-food or handicraft.

In principle, therefore, our increased ability to work from home could lead to new growth opportunities.

Will it work?

But there are important caveats. Not all rust belt cities will be able take advantage of the post-pandemic world. After all, there were large differences in labour market performance after the 1970s, when the aggregate number of manufacturing jobs started to decline.

In the UK, both Middlesborough and Slough had 44% manufacturing employment in 1970. But their experience was vastly different in the three following decades, with Middlesborough employment declining by 13% per decade and Slough employment growing by 12% per decade. Places such as Norwich and Preston in the UK, Bergamo in Italy, and San Jose in the US were traditional manufacturing hubs that nonetheless performed well in the decades that followed the start of manufacturing decline in their countries.

To understand why we may see large differences across different cities again with the rise of working from home, we first have to think about differences in what economists call human capital endowments – this relates to the skills of the workforce in a particular place. For example, if locality A has a greater share of the workforce with a university degree than locality B, it has a higher human capital endowment and is more likely to recover from industrial decline.

The skill level of the workforce is important for the task of local reinvention – in our research team’s analysis of the reinvention potential for cities, we used the share of the workforce with a university degree as a proxy for this. To distribute these advantages across the board, scholars studying declining areas have called for measures aimed at boosting training and facilitating the assimilation of knowledge and innovation.

Another important challenge is the digital divide – the gap in speeds between areas with privileged access to the internet and the rest of the country. In the UK this is more than just a gap between urban and rural parts of the country – inner-city areas in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are also left behind. A large reduction of this gap was important for job creation before COVID-19 – it should be a top priority now.

An overhead shot of a woman typing on a laptop at a table.
The UK’s digital divide affects cities too. marvent/Shutterstock

Local amenities also play a role. For skilled workers with family ties in a specific area, once they decide to regularly spend more time outside London, the choice of location is often pretty clear. For skilled workers without such ties, factors such as the cultural and recreational activities on offer in a new city become important, especially since they are used to a vibrant selection in London.

Overall, rust belt areas in Western economies face some opportunities for regeneration with teleworking, but there are also several important challenges. To maximise the potential for success, governments should consider measures that boost training, investment in high-speed broadband and improve transportation links between these cities and London.

These kinds of investments would help smaller cities such as Middlesborough, Hull and Stoke-on-Trent take advantage of the new opportunities presented by telework. Otherwise Manchester and, to some extent, other larger cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool could be the winners, among the rust belt, in the post-coronavirus work-from-home economy.

Michel Serafinelli, Lecturer in Economics, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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The economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak: what the experts are saying

While the coronavirus outbreak is first and foremost a public health emergency, the economic damage caused by the pandemic is also a huge concern. In recent weeks, think tanks and economists have been offering their thoughts on just how badly they believe the economy will be affected by Covid-19, and how long it might take to recover.

With each passing week it’s emerging that the economic impact of the coronavirus could be more severe than first thought. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that the shutdown of economic activity in the world’s major economies is likely to trigger a far more painful recession than the one following the financial crisis of 2008. The IMF now believes that the world is facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the UK, an equally gloomy prognosis has come from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the government’s fiscal watchdog. Its stark assessment of the possible economic impact of Covid-19 indicates that the UK economy could shrink by 35% and unemployment could rise to more than two million.

The regional picture

The economic impact of coronavirus is varying significantly across the country. Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) has revealed that the decline in economic output is estimated to reach almost 50% in parts of the Midlands and the North West in the second quarter of this year. In terms of decline in Gross Value Added (GVA), Pendle in the North West is estimated to be the hardest hit local authority in the UK, followed closely by South Derbyshire and Corby in the East Midlands.

In Scotland, since the coronavirus outbreak began, the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) has been publishing regular updates about how business is being affected.

The FAI’s most recent survey of Scottish businesses  finds that, while all sectors of the Scottish economy have been severely affected by the crisis in terms of staffing levels, the accommodation and food services sector (which includes hotels, bars and restaurants) has experienced the harshest impacts, with 77% of businesses reducing staff numbers. In addition, 85% of businesses expect growth in the Scottish economy to be weak or very weak over the next 12 months.

On a more positive note, the FAI survey found that more than 95% of businesses which are planning to use the UK government’s  Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme believe it will be ‘very effective/effective’ in supporting their survival during the pandemic.

Business and employment support

The Job Retention Scheme is one of a series of measures introduced by the UK government aiming to limit the impact of the coronavirus, and ensure much of the economy is able to recover when the health crisis is over. While these actions have been widely welcomed, there have been calls for the UK to learn from more innovative measures adopted by other governments.

A report by the Policy Exchange think tank has highlighted Denmark’s wage subsidy, which is differently calibrated to the Job Retention scheme in the UK. While the Danish government is covering 75% of the salaries of employees paid on a monthly basis who would otherwise have been fired, for hourly workers the government will cover 90% of their wages, up to £3,162 per month. The Policy Exchange report notes that this assumes that workers paid by the hour won’t have the savings and support networks that generally better off salaried workers are likely to have.

Household challenges

The bigger economic picture is bad enough. But the real pain of an economic recession will be felt much closer to home. For individual households, social distancing measures aiming to contain the spread of coronavirus are already having significant impacts on spending habits. Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has highlighted how these changes may be affecting people on different incomes.

The IFS suggests that richer households will be more resilient to falls in income since a considerable proportion of their spending goes on things that are currently not possible, such as eating out and holidays. But because lower-income households spend a higher share of their income on necessities, such as rent and food, the IFS suggests that they will be less resilient to any fall in income.

Exiting lockdown

In recent days, governments in France and Germany have set out plans for easing their lockdown restrictions, while Austria and Italy have already allowed some shops to open.  But the UK government has extended its lockdown to the beginning of May, and has not announced a clear exit strategy.

The uncertainty surrounding the trajectory of the coronavirus makes it exceptionally difficult to see when things might return to normal. But some analysts are becoming concerned about the harm that a prolonged lockdown might do.  A discussion paper published at the beginning of April highlighted some of these dangers:

“A long lockdown will wipe out large swathes of the economy. There will be a negative impact both financially and mentally on too many people. Already the lockdown has seen a surge in domestic violence. How to end the lockdown is key to helping restart the economy.”

The authors of the paper have put forward a strategy for ending the lockdown, suggesting that a phased traffic light approach (red, amber, green) would give everyone a clear sense of direction and address the economic, social and quality of life challenges posed by the lockdown.

After the virus

There is no clear agreement among economists on how the economy might fare once the health emergency has passed. Some economists forecast a sharp recovery, others suggest it will take two or more quarters, while still others forecast an initial boost in activity followed by another dip when the effects of unemployment and corporate bankruptcies start to filter through.

But there is a growing sense that the pandemic will have a fundamental impact on the economic and financial order. And in the UK, Paul Johnson, director of the IFS,  has suggested there will be an economic reckoning:

 “We will need a complete reappraisal of economic policy once the current economic dislocation is behind us. Tough decisions will have to be made which are likely to involve tax rises and higher debt for some time to come. The only other alternative would be another period of austerity on the spending side. That looks unlikely.”


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Spinout success: commercialising academic research

Research and teaching in UK universities is widely recognised to be among the best in the world.  In fact, the University of Oxford has topped the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 for the fourth year in a row.

However, in November last year, venture capital firm Octopus Ventures published a new measure of UK universities’ success – the Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking.

Instead of focusing on traditional measures of success, such as research, teaching and citation impact, Octopus Ventures’ new index measures UK universities’ effectiveness at translating this research into commercial success via the creation of “quality, investor-ready spinout companies”.

The results are a little surprising – with Queen’s University Belfast reaching the top spot, ahead of big players such as the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

In this blog post, we consider these findings in more detail, and discuss the potential to further capitalise on the potential of spinouts in the UK, and the key factors that underpin their success.

A brief history of spinouts

A university spinout has been defined by Octopus Ventures asa registered company set up to exploit intellectual property (IP) that has originated from within a university”.

In other words, it is a company that has been established based on ideas derived from a university’s research.  Often, former or current researchers are directly involved in the management team, and start-up funding is provided by the university (or one of its connected venture funds).

UK universities have been allowed to commercialise the results of their research since the mid-1980s. Between 2003 and 2018, approximately 3000 IP-based spinouts were created by UK universities.

Since 2010, there has been a notable increase in investment into university spinouts – both in terms of the number of deals achieved and the amount of money invested in university spinouts, from both private and public investment sources.

High rates of success

There is good reason for this increased investment – the survival rates of spinouts are high compared to other types of start up enterprise.  Research published in 2018 by law firm Anderson Law found that nine out of ten spinouts survive beyond five years.  By way of comparison, only two out of ten new enterprises survive beyond five years in the wider start-up environment.

Indeed, many spinouts not only survive, but thrive.  The UK has produced a large number of very successful spinouts – for example, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a University of Oxford spin-out company that has gone on to reach a £1.5 billion valuation.  ARM Holdings is another example – a designer of smartphone chips, established by the University of Cambridge, and acquired by Japanese firm Softbank for £24 billion in 2018.

Unrealised opportunities

However, while the UK has seen a number of high profile spinout success stories, Octopus Ventures, argue that there is yet more untapped potential to be realised:

The UK has produced a host of successful university spinouts, but there are many unrealised opportunities that have been left in labs or got lost on their funding journey. These could be worth trillions of pounds to the UK economy.”

This potential is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the unrivalled success of many universities in the United States.  Take, for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  MIT has been the genesis for around 26,000 spinout companies, with a combined annual company turnover of US$2 trillion.  This is a huge amount from one university – and is equivalent to around 65% of the UK’s entire annual GDP!  The resultant spinouts have also created in the region of 3.3 million jobs. MIT clearly illustrates the huge potential that exists to capitalise on universities’ research.

Index results

Back in the UK, this massive potential has yet to be realised.  Indeed, one of the key aims of the new Entrepreneurial Impact Ranking is to identify where this potential exists, and which universities are making notable progress towards capitalising on it.

The key data points included are:

  • total funding per university;
  • total spinouts created per university;
  • total disclosures per university;
  • total patents per university;
  • total sales from spinouts per university.

An interesting element of the index is that it is also adjusted to account for the total funding that a university receives.  This means that it is not dominated by Russell Group universities simply on the basis of them receiving the most funding.

Indeed, Queen’s University Belfast was ranked first – putting it ahead of both the University of Cambridge (2nd place) and the University of Oxford (9th place) in terms of its production of spinout companies and successful exits, relative to the total funding received.

Queen’s University Belfast, through QUBIS Ltd, the university’s commercialisation arm, has had a number of spinout successes, including KainosAndor Technology, and Fusion Antibodies, all of which have been listed on the London Stock Exchange.

In Scotland, the highest ranking university was the University of Dundee (6th), which has had a number of successful spinouts, including Platinum Informatics, which specialises in the provision of software to analyse ‘big data’.

What makes a successful spinout company?

As well as identifying the most effective universities in terms of spinouts, the Octopus Ventures report also looks at the shared success factors that have contributed to their effectiveness.

There are three key factors:

  • Funding – Access to early funding is essential to success. Universities that ranked highly in the index were ones that raised funds to help get ideas off the drawing board. As Simon King, a partner in Octopus Ventures states: “Universities that enable early-stage proof of concepts and prototyping by making early-stage funds available, either internally through their own funds or through collaborative schemes with other funds are more successful at creating spinouts.  That’s a key takeaway.”
  • Talent – the issue of talent is considered a ‘consistently challenging’ issue for spinouts.  There is a huge demand for the right skills, and spinouts are often viewed as being high-risk propositions compared to more established enterprises.  Other challenges include a lack of academics’ understanding of the business world, and limited incentives for them to engage in the commercial world in light of the pressure to ‘publish or perish’.
  • Collaboration – As well as university-industry collaboration, collaboration between different universities was a key factor in the creation of successful spinouts. Collaboration helps to increase both scale and capacity, whilst also helping to attract and retain top talent.

Future support for spinouts

Measuring the relative effectiveness of UK universities’ ability to commercialise their research provides a number of signposts for the future in regards to how best to support and further develop this potential.

This is increasingly important given the economic uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the availability of a number of European funding streams once the UK leaves the European Union.

The UK’s Industrial Strategy places a clear emphasis on academic entrepreneurialism as a driver of economic growth.  And in 2018, the UK Government launched the £100m Connecting Capability Fund to support university collaboration in research commercialisation.

Commercialising academic research is far more complex, risky and expensive than establishing a typical start-up.  But their potential contribution to the economy, and wider society, is huge.


Further reading: our blog posts on higher education

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Shared Prosperity Fund – greater productivity and inclusivity for Scottish cities?

new bridge glasgow

There are many questions surrounding the UK’s departure from the European Union, not least on the future of funding.

In Scotland’s regions and cities, EU Structural Funds have provided significant additional funding to support economic development for many years. The current structural funds programme is worth about €10.7 billion to the United Kingdom and up to €872 million to Scotland across the seven-year budget period which ends in 2020. The Funds were originally created to help rebalance regional social and economic disparities. With regional inequality a dominant feature of the current economic landscape, and the potential of Brexit to further exacerbate this inequality, continued investment to address this is vital.

The UK Government has made no commitment to continue with the EU Structural Fund approach following exit from the EU and has instead proposed to introduce a domestic successor arrangement – the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). The objective of the SPF is to “tackle inequalities between communities by raising productivity, especially in those parts of our country whose economies are furthest behind.” This objective is widely welcomed. However, as yet there has been no formal consultation on the new Fund and no detail on how it will operate.

Nevertheless, it had been suggested in recent research from the Core Cities Group on Scottish cities that despite the significant contribution from Structural Funds over the years, the proposed SPF could be an opportunity for greater productivity and inclusivity.

Success of EU Structural Funding

The two major EU Structural Funds utilised in Scotland are the European Social Fund (ESF), focusing on skills and jobs, and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which focuses on correcting regional imbalances.

Over £134m per annum is being invested in economic development in Scotland through these funds over the current programming period, which is supported by a significant amount of match funding, largely from the public sector. According to the Scottish Government, the total funding will be around €1.9 billion.

The Scottish Cities – the collaboration of Scotland’s seven cities (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness Perth, and Stirling) – and city regions have already successfully invested in each of the four Scottish Economic Strategy priorities (innovation, investment, inclusive growth and internationalisation) and the UK Industrial Strategy’s five foundations of productivity (ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment and place).

Some examples of projects include:

Research suggests that the ending of such funding poses a risk to organisations and the positive economic impact gained, as illustrated by reductions in funding in other areas of the UK.

Limitations

Despite the successes that have been achieved through the use of Structural Funds, the approach is not without its limitations. As argued by the Core Cities report, the approach to managing, overseeing and using the funding has become more bureaucratic and cumbersome. Particular issues highlighted include:

  • increasing centralisation of funding and decision-making;
  • the requirement to provide match-funding at an individual project level becoming increasingly problematic due to public sector budget cuts;
  • monitoring, compliance and audit requirements have become increasingly onerous;
  • in the current programme period, the role of the Managing Authority has become more transactional, with little engagement at the project development stage;
  • eligibility rules restrict what can be funded, with some important elements of economic development no longer able to be supported e.g. new commercial premises, transport infrastructure, which can limit the benefits from other Structural Fund investment (such as business growth and employment creation on strategic sites);
  • the system does not encourage innovation, with high levels of risk aversion amongst programme managers, and a high degree of risk for project sponsors if project delivery does not proceed as planned – a particular issue for projects working with the most disadvantaged groups and those with complex needs.

The report argues that these factors have had the effect of limiting the achievements of the Funds, such as preventing some organisations from applying for funding, which in turn has made others wary about applying. This has led to projects being designed to meet the funding criteria rather than maximising benefits, resulting in too much time and effort on administrative activities rather than those which will have an impact on the economy.

As such, it is suggested that the introduction of the SPF affords an opportunity to change this.

Opportunity for change

According to the report, there is an opportunity to move away from the limitations of the Structural Fund programme approach to more effective arrangements that will increase productivity and contribute to a more inclusive economy. There is scope to increase the funding available through the SPF, reduce bureaucracy and become more responsive to local need.

It is suggested that there is potential for SPF investment in the Scottish Cities to deliver an economic dividend of up to £9bn as productivity increases, producing higher wages at all levels in the workforce, and contributing to a more inclusive economy overall.

Given that Scotland’s performance on some of the key economic indicators is likely to be taken into account when allocating SPF – GVA per job and per hour worked, employment rate, deprivation levels – the report also contends that there is a case for a greater share of the SPF for Scottish Cities. It argues that significant SPF investment in these areas “…will increase competitiveness and tackle inequality, as set out in Scotland’s Economic Strategy, as well as contributing towards the objectives of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, raising productivity and reducing inequalities between communities”.

The report warns that “Scotland will not make significant progress towards a more inclusive economy and society without addressing the deprivation challenges in the Scottish Cities.”

It is recommended that:

  • the SPF should use a transparent, needs-based allocation system;
  • the SPF budget should not be determined by previous levels of Structural Funds, and should be significantly increased; and
  • the Scottish Cities must be closely involved in the design of the SPF.

Final thoughts

There appears to be wide consensus for providing a replacement for EU Structural funding. Most organisations that have commented on the proposed SPF also agree that the level of funding should at least be maintained at its current level.

The concerns in Scotland, and indeed the other devolved legislatures, is the impact the SPF might have in devolved decision making powers currently exercised under EU Structural Funding.

The Scottish Cities have made clear their views on the proposed SPF and the Scottish Government has also launched its own consultation on how the Fund might work for Scotland.

Only time will tell whether the UK Government will take these comments on board, and indeed whether the opportunity for change will be realised at all.


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Diversity and precarity: a conference on Scotland’s places of creative production

It might come as a surprise to learn that Scotland’s creative industries make up the country’s second biggest growth sector, after energy. But as well as making significant economic contributions, the creative sector is important on its own terms, with practitioners deploying their imagination, skills and expertise in a wide variety of sub sectors, from architecture and advertising to design and music.

Last month, The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) hosted a conference focusing on the ambitions of Scotland’s creative community. The organisers chose the perfect setting for the conference: for the past 20 years The Lighthouse in Glasgow has been a beacon for Scotland’s creative industries. As well as serving as Scotland’s architecture and design centre, the building has a direct connection to one of Glasgow’s cultural heroes. Designed in 1895 for the Glasgow Herald, The Lighthouse was the first public commission for Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Scotland’s creative community has a lot to be proud of, but as well as acknowledging success stories in television, computer games and the visual arts, the conference also addressed the shadows that threaten to undermine Scotland’s creative sector.

Defining design and the challenges of precarity

One of these issues was raised by Janice Kirkpatrick, founding director of Graven, one of Scotland’s most successful design studios. Janice observed that the creative community’s difficulty in defining creativity has made it hard to communicate its work to the wider world. This is important, especially when trying to attract young people into the sector. She noted that in England between 2000 and 2018 there was a 79% fall in the number of people studying design. The situation in Scotland isn’t quite as bleak, with a 16% increase in design students. But Janice argued that there is a need to introduce children to art and design at a much earlier stage in their lives so that they can regard the creative sector as a serious career option.

Katrina Brown, founding director of The Common Guild, agreed that schools have a vital role to play in nurturing an affinity for and awareness of the arts. She observed that other countries have adopted a different approach, noting that a friend living in France had complained that their daughter’s school organised visits to art galleries just once a month.

The Common Guild is a dynamic visual arts organisation in Glasgow, and Katrina referenced her experiences to highlight the precarity of the sector. The arts have not been immune to the impact of austerity following the global economic crisis. Galleries have closed, programming has been reduced, and opportunities for artists, invigilators, educators and technicians have shrunk. This matters, Katrina argued, not only because the arts have such positive economic effects, but they also enrich our health, wellbeing and quality of life.

Despite the harsh economic climate, many public bodies recognise the value of the arts, and Katrina offered the example of Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), which has become a world class centre for contemporary art and culture. The University of Dundee has demonstrated the importance of supporting the cultural life of the city by investing in DCA, which supports individuals in their artistic endeavours, but also provides them with an income through jobs in the centre’s café and cinema.

Place makers: Glasgow’s Meanwhile Spaces

The conference’s title – Places of Creative Production – took on a special resonance during a presentation by Richard Watson, Commercial Lead at City Property Glasgow, a subsidiary of Glasgow City Council. Like many UK cities, Glasgow’s city centre has been struggling to cope with the impact of online shopping and out-of-town retail centres. Closures have hit the city harder than any other in Scotland, with an alarming rise in the number of vacant properties. In response to these challenges, City Property Glasgow has been working with the council and other agencies to create ‘Meanwhile Spaces’ from empty shops in the city’s High Street and Saltmarket. After being made structurally safe and ready for new tenants, a new leasing strategy was developed, offering the properties for one year, rent-free (all other service, utility and business rates charges still apply).

Since June of this year, the first Meanwhile Space tenants have been moving in, and many of these are members of the Scotland’s creative community, including:

SOGO: a Scottish based bi-annual lifestyle and arts magazine, which promotes and provides a platform for Scottish creative industries and communities.

WASPS: the UK’s largest non-profit studio provider for artists, which will use a Meanwhile Space to support activities in which creators can prosper.

SALTSPACE: a new co-op launched by students and graduates from Glasgow School of Art to support young creatives in their transition from art school into professional practice.

Although the project is still at an early stage, Richard explained that the response of tenants and local residents has been positive, and City Property Glasgow is already working on plans to create Meanwhile Spaces in other parts of the city, and to develop longer-term spaces.

The conference heard a variety of voices and experiences, giving participants the opportunity to learn about a rich diversity of creative activities in Scotland and beyond:

  • Professor Andrew Brewerton from Plymouth College of Art, described the establishment of a free school specialising in the creative arts;
  • Video games artist and lecturer Andrew Macdonald compared his experience of working in Sweden’s games industry with the games sector in Scotland;
  • Writer and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove explained the approach taken by the Glasgow team in forming a successful bid to become one of Channel 4’s creative hubs.

Forward thinking

Closing the conference, Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam, Director of The Glasgow School of Art, said that the GSA would be happy to organise further events that might build on the ideas arising from the day’s conversations. And she reminded participants that although Scotland’s creative community faces significant challenges, it also has the skills, experience and passion needed to meet them.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on culture and creativity:

‘Digital prescribing’ – could tech provide the solution to loneliness in older people?

Notruf und Hilfe für Rentner und Kranke

The number of over-50s experiencing loneliness could reach two million by 2026. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years.

It has also been estimated that around 1.5 million people aged 50 and over are ‘chronically lonely.’

With an ageing population and increasing life expectancy, it would seem likely that loneliness among older people is set to continue; unless something significant is done. According to Age UK, tackling loneliness requires more than social activities. A new report from Vodafone suggests technology could be the answer.

Impact

The impact of loneliness in older people can be immense, not only for the older people themselves but for those around them. It can also put strain on the NHS, employers and organisations providing support to people who are lonely; and have a negative impact on growth and living standards.

Research has suggested that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness are at increased risk of developing health conditions such as dementia and depression, as well as increased risk of mortality. The damaging health effect of loneliness has been shown to be comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Older people who are lonely are therefore more likely to use health services than those who are never lonely.

The economic impact is also significant. It has been estimated that increases in service usage create a cost to the public sector of an average £12,000 per person over the medium term (15 years). Vodafone’s report suggests that loneliness has a £1 billion a year impact on public services. It has also been found to cost employers £2.5 billion per year.

How tech can ease the burden

According to Vodafone, “new technologies are a key part of the solution” alongside more traditional public and community services. Two key routes through which technology can be used to reduce loneliness are highlighted:

  • by supporting older people to remain independent in their home and community; and
  • maintaining and building networks and contacts.

From wearable devices and touchscreens to personal robots that act as the eyes, ears and voice of people unable to present physically, these are all highlighted as viable and positive uses of tech to ease the burden of loneliness. And there are already a number of examples of innovative use of technology that can benefit older people.

1024px-AV1

No Isolation AV1 robot. Image by Mats Hartvig Abrahamsen, via CC BY-SA 4.0

Good practice examples

One such example is Vodafone’s smart wearable wristband, the V-SOS Band, which supports independent living while also increasing the wearer’s safety. It can directly alert family members via their phone if the wearer needs help. It also uses fall detection technology so that families can be alerted automatically if the wearer falls either in the home or when they are out.

Kraydel is another example. Its smart TV-top hub links elderly people to their carers or family members, through their TV screens, helping people be more independent and remain in their own homes for longer as well as helping them be more socially connected. It provides for user-friendly video calling via the TV and can help people return home from hospital earlier. Via connection to the cloud, the device interprets the data it receives to build up a picture of the user’s daily activities, health and wellbeing. It issues medicine and diary reminders, and alerts caregivers if it sees something amiss, or identifies potential risk.

Although aimed at children, No Isolation’s AV1 – a smart robot designed to reduce the risks of children and young adults with long-term illness becoming socially isolated – demonstrates the positive impact innovative technology can have on social isolation and loneliness. The robot avatar, with its 360 degree camera, acts as the child’s eyes, ears and voice in the classroom or at other events, keeping children closely involved with school and in touch with their friends.

Of course, loneliness is particularly prevalent among people who don’t use smart technology such as smart phones and tablets, one of the reasons cited by Kraydel for using the TV – probably the most familiar and widely used screen globally. This issue also led No Isolation to develop KOMP, a communication device for seniors that requires no prior digital skills. It enables users to receive photos, messages and video calls from their children and grandchildren, operated by one single button.

Another new project recently launched in Sweden – considered one of the world’s loneliest countries – uses a unique conversational artificial intelligence which enables older people to capture life stories for future generations while providing companionship. Memory Lane works with Google Voice Assistant and is able to hold meaningful conversations in as human a way as possible. A pilot test showed that the software “instantly sparked intimate conversations” and led to stories that hadn’t been told before.

Final thoughts

With a significant number of older people lacking confidence in their ability to use technology for essential online activities, support for digital skills is obviously still important. In response to this issue, Vodafone has launched free masterclasses across the UK, as part of a programme called TechConnect.

Many of the above innovative examples bypass the traditional barriers to realising the potential of technology in reducing loneliness as most:

  • don’t rely on older people engaging directly with the technology; and
  • are based on mobile technology that can be constantly connected, whether inside or outside the home.

However, there is still the issue of awareness of such technologies and their accessibility to older people. The Vodafone report suggests that access could be improved through social and digital prescribing and revitalising support for independent living, and calls for a challenge fund to support innovation. It is suggested that these innovative ideas are just the start and that combined action is needed from across all levels of government, business and community groups, amongst others.

Perhaps if such action is taken to address existing barriers, we will see a reverse in the loneliness trend over the next 10 years.


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